Just who slipped in the Mickey Finn isn't yet clear, but a Senate appropriations bill for the Treasury Department contains a provision that a consumer group believes would bottle up efforts to require the labeling of wine and beer that contain potentially life-threatening sulfites.
The bill, as it came out of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee last week, would forbid the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to issue or enforce any rules on ingredient labeling of wine, malt beverages or distilled spirits until a lawsuit filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) makes its way through the courts.
According to center official Bruce Silverglade, the provision would halt a recent proposal by BATF to require wine and beer labels to note the presence of sulfur dioxide or other sulfiting agents, which can cause dangerous allergic reactions in asthma victims and other sensitive persons.
He said the language also casts doubt on another regulation that would require liquor distillers to label products containing FD&C No. 5, a yellow dye that has also been linked to allergic reactions.
Aides to subcommittee Chairman Sen. James Abdnor (R-S.D.), who ordered the language put into the bill, denied that the rider would have any effect on the pending regulations. "It is not our intention to hit health-hazard types of things," said a subcommittee aide. Another Abdnor aide said the wording was "just a legal matter."
But some other members of Congress are skeptical. An aide to Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said the amendment doesn't make a distinction between kinds of ingredients or additives, and it could be interpreted far more broadly than Abdnor says he intends.
"It's subject to interpretation by whim, and with what's been going on at the Office of Management and Budget lately, we'd hate to trust that in their hands," the Metzenbaum aide said. "We intend to make sure it's rectified."
Sulfites are most commonly used on fresh fruits and vegetables, to keep them crisp and fresh-looking. But the substances are often added to wine, and less frequently to beer, as a preservative.
In either case, they can trigger intense allergic reactions in some sensitive persons, especially asthmatics. Most of the 15 deaths associated with sulfite use in the last two years have involved sulfite-treated vegetables, but the death of a Dallas man last July was attributed to German white wine that contained the preservative.
Silverglade's group has battled for years to get the government to ban sulfites or at least make the food and beverage industry note their use on labels. By this summer, that goal appeared close. The Food and Drug Administration proposed last month to ban six sulfite preservatives on fresh fruits and vegetables, and BATF proposed separately to require labels for sulfite-treated alcoholic beverages.
The BATF rule would affect most wines sold in the United States, and could take effect as soon as next March.
Just how the language got into the appropriations bill remains a bit of a mystery. The House version of the bill contained similar but narrower language forbidding BATF from pursuing a set of Carter administration regulations that would have required far more extensive ingredient labeling.
The CSPI filed suit when the Reagan administration abandoned those rules; the rider has been in the House appropriations bill for the past two years.
The Abdnor language deleted the House's specific reference to the Carter rules, however, and substituted broader language forbidding BATF from issuing "any rules" on ingredient labeling.